Prepare yourself: The baseball offseason is here, and that means a never-ending stream of speculation about trades and free agent signings.
John Schuerholz, former general manager of the Atlanta Braves, used to accuse reporters of blowing even the tiniest tidbit of conversation out of proportion. “Reporters take a kernel of popcorn and turn it into a large bag immediately,” he said.
In case you haven’t heard, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are the two biggest names on the free agent market. Baseball hasn’t seen this kind of potential Hall of Fame talent at such a young age since Alex Rodriguez left Seattle to sign with Texas at 25 in 2001.
The best starters on the market are lefties Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel, who won a Cy Young Award in 2015. Three National League East teams - the Nationals, Phillies and Braves - will each be interested in the pitchers, as will the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees.
Among the best relievers available are Zach Britton, Jeurys Familia and Adam Ottovino.
Here are the top storylines and most-asked questions about what is ahead in baseball this winter:
Q: Will Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw opt out of his contract and become a free agent?
A: Interesting question because, at 30, there’s a lot of wear and tear on Kershaw’s arm and he’s not the same pitcher he was a few years ago. He’s at a stage in his career where his velocity is lower and he has to make the transition from power pitcher to command pitcher. He’s throwing more sliders. Kershaw has been on the disabled list with back injuries in each of the last three seasons. Kershaw is owed $70 million for the last two seasons of his contract, 2019 and 2020. He’ll have 10 days after the World Series to decide. One possible solution: He will use the opt-out clause as a tool to get an extension so he can stay longer with the Dodgers.
Q: Will the Giants trade lefty starter Madison Bumgarner?
A: It is possible. People who know say that the front office teams in the organization are debating that issue. The argument for keeping him is obvious: He can be leader in a rotation that has good young pitchers in Chris Stratton, Dereck Rodríguez and Andrew Suárez. The argument for trading Bumgarner is that the Giants need to retool their roster with speed, youth and athleticism.
Q: Will Manny Machado’s postseason attitude affect his free agent salary?
A: Yes, of course. What owner is going to fork over millions to a player that says it isn’t his “cup of tea,’’ to hustle? Or give money to a player who kicks the Brewers’ Jesús Aguilar at first base in the National League Championship Series and then says afterward that that is the way he plays the game. One of the brightest stars in the game, Machado, 26, is going to make a ton of money, but it’s understandable why a team would hold Machaco’s immature behavior against him in contract negotiations. Machado is valuable because he can play airtight defense on the left side of the infield - he’s a better at third than he is at short - and because he’s hit 175 home runs before 25, something only four other players have done, Jimmie Foxx, Rodriguez, Orlando Cepeda and Eddie Mathews.
Q: The Astros won the World Series in 2017, but lost to Boston in the American League Championship Series this year. What are their plans?
A: The Astros need to rebuild their rotation. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole will be the top two starters. Keuchel, 30, and Charlie Morton, 34, are both free agents. Morton, who battled shoulder issues, might retire. Lance McCullers’ health is once again an issue. Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock, two former starters who pitched out of the bullpen in 2018, are likely candidates for the rotation.
Q: What will the Brewers’ plans be in the offseason?
A: The Brewers, who lost 5-1 in Game 7 of the NLCS, need to focus on the starting rotation behind their unexpected ace, Jhoulys Chacín. Gio Gonzalez, the former National, and Wade Miley, the former Oriole, are free agents, and given how well each pitched with Milwaukee, they’ll be in demand. The other notable free agent is outfielder Curtis Granderson. Reliever Jeremy Jeffress has a mutual option and is expected to be back with the Brewers next season. Outfielders Christian Yelich - the likely National League MVP - and Lorenzo Cain each have five years to go before they can leave. First baseman Aguilar will get a raise after playing for the minimum salary in 2019.
Q: How much money will pitchers Gonzalez and Miley get?
A: As long as teams don’t look at how they pitched for the Nationals and Orioles, respectively, chances are they are going to get good contracts. Gonzalez, 33, had a strong September for the Brewers before hurting his ankle in the NLCS. Miley, a lefty who led the American League with 93 walks for Baltimore in 2017, rebounded nicely for the Brewers, changing his pitching mechanics and throwing more cutters. Miley posted a 2.57 ERA in 16 starts this season. It’s possible he could be in line for three years and $32 million.
Q: The Angels hired Brad Ausmus as their new manager, replacing Mike Scioscia. What is Ausmus’ biggest challenge?
A: The Angels were the fourth-best team in the AL West and are coming off a season in which they used 16 different starting pitchers. Andrew Heaney led the staff with 130 innings, not exactly a recipe for contention. Shohei Ohtani, coming back from elbow surgery, will not pitch and will get most of his at-bats at designated hitter, so where does that leave Albert Pujols, 38, who is way past his prime. Pujols is still owed $28 million next year, $29 million in 2020 and $30 million in 2021, the final year of his 10-year deal. Ausmus is going have to find a way to get Pujols to buy into hitting lower in the order, because Pujols is not the dangerous bat he once was. Also, the Angels might look into trading the game’s best player, outfielder Mike Trout, so he can get a chance at playing in the postseason. He’s on a six-year $144 million contract that ends after 2020. He’s a two-time AL MVP and a seven-time All-Star.
Q: Will Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt be on the trade block?
A: The D-Backs aren’t saying, but it is looking like they are in for some kind of rebuild. They are going to lose outfielder A.J. Pollock and Corbin to free agency. The farm system is in need of replenishing. Goldschmidt is a six-time All-Star. He has finished second in the NL MVP voting twice. He stole 32 of 37 bases in 2016. He is a free agent after the 2019 season, and the good news for Arizona: The Mets and Yankees are each in need of a first baseman. The Mets have no stability at that position, and the Yankees’ Greg Bird, who is always battling injuries, and the youthful Luke Voit are the their options at first base.
Q: Atlanta won the NL East with a rebuilding team. Are the Braves going to be active on the free agent market?
A: Yes. Their foundation is strong and they have money, at least $60 million, to spend. They need a catcher, an outfielder and experience in the rotation. They will have the prospects to trade for Miami catcher J.T. Realmuto. And they will be active at a time when the free-agent market has good pitching, including Corbin and Keuchel.